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Turnbull's techno-optimism is a tad hasty


It's an election year, and the Turnbull government's narrative is going to be vastly different to the Abbott opposition's in 2013. Abbott was elected off the back of an unstable Labor government, and an unparalleled scare-campaign around carbon pricing. The Turnbull government is taking a different tack.

Happy people wearing promotional hats for new technologiesIts new campaign declares 'we've always been good at having ideas. Now we need to get better at innovation: turning ideas into successful products and services.'

The video is packed with touchscreens, machines, microscopes and lasers. The message is clear: this is a technological revolution, driven by government.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's story of innovation is an optimistic one, but I worry we've some way to go before this vision can be realised. The techno-optimism of 2016 may yet prove to be too hasty.

Political campaigns to see the spread of technology can be as harmful as campaigns to hinder it. The communities that host the technologies governments seek to champion can react with anger and fear, and this can manifest in strange ways. If communities are left out of the process, visions of grand, sweeping change can be hindered, or totally undermined.

Consider the world of renewable energy. Government support for clean energy has waxed and waned, and as a consequence, development has been problematic.

It would have been impossible to predict that by 2016, Australia would have a 'wind farm commissioner', a dedicated $2.5million budget to research 'wind turbine syndrome' within the National Health and Medical Research Council, and an additional 'Independent Scientific Panel' to review and report on the current state of scientific research into 'wind turbine syndrome'. (A recent AUD$2.1m Canadian government study found no evidence of health impacts from wind turbines).

Concerns about the health impacts of clean energy, and subsequent political reaction and regulation, are somewhat baffling to countries that have seen broad community acceptance of clean energy through community engagement and ownership schemes, like Germany and Denmark.

In Australia, wind farms and utility-scale solar farms have been historically fully owned by developers. This works well in certain areas, but there is some research that suggests a broader system of benefit sharing can work to minimise community friction, which dates back to the early 2000s.

Risk perception theory explains that communities can often feel left out of large-scale installations near their homes, and as a consequence, are over-sensitised to health warnings presented in the media, and by anti-wind groups.

I can only assume that the innovation and techno-optimism underpinning the rollout of clean energy in the early days of the industry was as cheerful as Turnbull's current campaign. I see this as a cautionary tale — this optimism must be blended with a consideration of community perception and psychology.

Towers used in the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN) have also provoked oddly intense fear in local communities. The community of Witta, Queensland, is one of many campaigning against the installation of NBN towers based on health fears. Dereel, in Victoria, has faced similar health fears, along with Smeaton and Buninyong.

As a technology already suffering setbacks and cost-blowouts, the additional costs of delays caused by impassioned community reactions again illustrate an important point — upgrading this vital piece of infrastructure isn't a venture that can subsist on an optimistic narrative.

Community views deserve more than lip-service, and I wonder if these problems can be avoided by a stronger focus on what causes technological health fears in communities. There is a historical precedent — mobile phone towers underwent an analogous pattern of local community health fears (and in some places, still do).

Problems emerging from unhappy communities near rapid technological development can be avoided. Governments can redirect money towards addressing the root cause of bad community reactions — disenfranchisement and inequitable development.

Turnbull's positive narrative around innovation and agility can stay, but technological upgrades that filter through Australian communities need greater local involvement.

Imagine NBN towers that set aside a small percentage of free bandwidth for those who live within one kilometre of the tower. The concept grates against the instincts of many developers and politicians, but it would almost certainly pay itself back, in avoided legal costs.

Imagine the money directed at studying wind farm health impacts was instead directed towards a community ownership fund — it would give technological innovation a real and sustainable boost. We need just as much innovation in community ownership models as we do in circuits and silicon. 

My own area of transformation, renewable energy, has been recently boosted by the Paris COP21 agreement. Yet, in the context of this urgency, it is important that we learn to weigh optimism and excitement against a cautious and empathetic consideration of people, and how they will react to the propagation of new technology.

Before we get too excited about a nation transformed by innovation, we need to recognise and rectify the coarse intersection between humans and technology.


Ketan JoshiKetan Joshi works in the renewable energy industry in Sydney, and writes on science, technology and political issues. He tweets @Ketanj0

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Ketan Joshi, innovation, NBN, wind farms



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Existing comments

Of course INFIGEN’s communications director will say that a Windfarm Commissioner is unnecessary and further research into windfarm health impacts is unwarranted! Sydney based Ketan suggests impacted rural residents complaining about windfarms are merely jealous that they are not deriving financial benefit, an affliction he proposes can be cured by payments. By simply paying complainants not to complain, Ketan is only offering a psychologically slanted band-aid to distract from the industry’s real problem – windfarms are noisy and often cause communities nuisance. Notice how Ketan doesn't make any distinction between the complaints of residents living near a noise-compliant windfarm and a windfarm that operates in excess of noise limits and in breach of permit? Surely we should take into consideration the validity of the complaint and investigate whether the noise nuisance complained about is excessive before we just had over the cheque-book, pay and gag complainants? Our regulators and National Wind Farm Commissioner must insist on responsible, robust regulation of windfarms. Windfarm operators must operate their wind farms in a way that won’t cause nuisance to hosting rural communities, whether they are compensated for it or not.

Good witch Gwenda | 15 February 2016  

Joshi and his employer, Infigen Energy, have a financial conflict of interest. Predictably they continue to deny that wind turbine "noise" can cause serious adverse health effects resulting from sleep disturbance and neurophysiological stress. UK Acoustician Geoffrey Leventhall admitted in an NHMRC workshop in June 2011 that the symptoms reported by residents are the same as those of "wind turbine syndrome". So, Joshi's statements are not supported by the facts. Read Dr David Iser's world first simple population survey from 2004, documenting symptoms of stress and sleep disturbance, resulting in moderate to severe adverse health impacts for residents within 2km of the Toora wind power facility in Victoria. Read South Australian farmers Cilve and Trina Gare's recent testimony to the Australian Federal Senate Inquiry into Wind Turbine Regulation where they document the noise nuisance caused by neighbouring industrial wind turbines, 19 of which they host. Even after $1 million in lease payments the Gare's regret their decision, and would not buy another property within 20km of a wind turbine. Read the legal statement by another wind turbine host, David Mortimer, who hosted turbines at Infigen's own Lake Bonney Wind Power Development. Such dishonest behaviour destroys the wind industry's social licence.

Sarah Laurie | 16 February 2016  

To get around some of the community dislike of huge IT infrastructure, I'd recommend changing the design of these towers to make them look like sculptures! Maybe like a big statue of Christ the Redeemer or a huge blue milk crate - something aesthetically pleasing. And small cabins/studio flats could be installed in the base of the tower for the homeless, also giving them free wi-fi to access job-seeking support!

AURELIUS | 17 February 2016  

Turnbull doesn't want to live in the past and we have some catching up to do. Just look at Germany. I believe there have been several extensive studies into the effects of Wind farms on health. And it is curious how Europeans aren't effected by these health concerns. Oh yes but they are paid for having them. I believe the future is in battery powered homes. However, I personally want to see a wide variety of clean energy invested in and used on a much larger scale. Australia is being left behind.

Kate | 17 February 2016  

The reason Europe hasn't seen the level of complaints about wind farms as Australia is because the industry is much bigger and this has allowed new wind-power technology to be developed to employ sound-dampening systems. (The problems most Australians have are similar to one people who live near a highway report - with chronic low-level noise issues affecting sleep ect) Also, Australians do get paid for having wind turbines on their land.

AURELIUS | 17 February 2016  

might be hasty but is required. it is not turnbulls fault that our technology is so far behind. It needs a major upgrade everywhere from local councils thru to Commonwealth Government. Our health scheme cannot be fixed until there is a Bob hawke ""australia card'' implemented and so on and so on

phil | 19 February 2016  

@ Kate, (commented 17 Feb) You may wish to acquaint yourself with the 'European Platform Against Wind' website here: http://www.epaw.org/ I too want to see Australia's swift transition to a renewable, clean energy future but in my view, the rapid installation of massive industrial wind power stations is not the most socially, financially or environmentally responsible way to get there. From a technical perspective, wind power is not base-load so we never stop burning fossil fuels while wind farms operate. Without fossil fuel backup, power would not be available on demand - the lights would turn off whenever the wind stops blowing - about 65% of the time! I think we all need to show more compassion toward our rural Australians claiming to be adversely impacted by questionably useful wind farms and less attention to Mr Joshi's pro-wind propanda. It just mean to suggest that payments cure complaints. Contractual gag clauses silence (public) complaints and stifle and distort the debate. Please read Australian and international submissions to the recent Senate Wind Farm Inquiry here: http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Wind_Turbines/Wind_Turbines/Submissions

Polly Staffer | 22 February 2016  

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